In the UK, we have just concluded LGBT History Month. Ironically, if we can learn anything from this month – by doing some history – it is to take its name with a pinch of salt.
LGBT History started out with the G. That is, post-war narratives tend to centre on gay men: both negative attention and emancipatory activism, landmarked by the Stonewall riots in 1969, have mostly focused on male nightlife. As the gay liberation movement developed, gradually the L was added, for example in Lesbian and Gay History Month, celebrated in the USA since 1994. Later on, the ensemble was completed with a B and a T. Surely, this covers all bases, institutions like LGBT History Month seem to suggest.
But it would only be fair to continue adding letters: if we have a T for trans*-persons (transgenders, transexuals, cross-dressers…), why not add an I for intersex? After all, the T focuses on gender identity rather than sexual preference. If we include the lives and struggles of people who are crossing the gender binary, than surely we should include those of people who move somewhere in between? And why not also include a B, a D, an S and an M to include other kinds of marginalised practices? (see footnote 1) And how about the H that is sometimes included in southern Asia to represent hijras?
Hijra communities are in fact a good example of how culturally specific all these gender/sexual identities are. And because of their specificity, it is problematic to subsume them under the Euro-American post-Stonewall denominations used in global activism. Activists worldwide quite understandably employ these denominations in order to have a language to speak in, not least to reach financial donors in the west. But I fear that such names do not much help the cause of people suffering under post-colonial governments which picture, for example, homosexuality as an intrusive western ‘lifestyle’: see the new law that came into effect in Uganda only last week.
But nor are they always equally appropriate within ‘western’ history itself. In Plato’s Symposion, for example, two different characters describe men who love men as being more masculine (as well as being more intellectually creative) than men who love women. The latter are the androgynous ones. This differs markedly from popular perceptions about gay men nowadays. (footnote 2) A quite different example are the ‘sodomites’ we encounter in high-medieval penitentials. A ‘sodomite’ could be a man who had had anal sex with a woman, or with a man: method mattered more than gender. And how about the category of medieval mystics who, in their erotic poems, desired nothing more than a spiritual unity with Christ? If we want to take this cultural and historical diversity into account, we might end up with a whole lot of identity categories.
Some have rightly questioned this explosion of compartmentalised identifications and call themselves ‘queer’. Yet in many quarters this has only led to the addition of an extra letter to the alphabet. This leaves the English-speaking world with a host of LGBTIQQ societies. That last Q, of course, stands for ‘questioning’.
Which is perhaps what we should be doing. For to narrow down our adolescence to the choosing of a letter (including an S for ‘straight’) can surely not be the most rebellious thing.
And yet, I would not want LGBT History Month to go away.
A question that has occasionally been asked to me since becoming involved in this topic, is why gay people feel the need to flock together in special bars and parades – which implies the question: why is there a separate LGBT History Month?
The answer may be obvious to anyone with alternative tastes in anything: you need such places to find what you are looking for (in this case it may be anything from conversation to romance or sex) and feel normal (need I say: in a special way). It is the burden of the marginalised that their tastes are not taken for granted and need to be specially signaled. In that sense, a gay bar does not differ much from a Comic Con.
Café ‘t Mandje in Amsterdam: meeting-place for same-sex lovers between 1927 and 2007; now reconstructed in the Amsterdam Museum, who provided the photo.
These places thus fulfil an important function, as does this History Month. But we should not forget that this function is largely political. By forming a group and setting themselves visibly apart, people command recognition for their existence. What is more, people find safety and comfort in group identities. However diverse sexual and gender behaviours and feelings may be, the fact that people classify themselves and others is only human. (footnote 3) These reasons make people identify as, for example, ‘Russian’ or ‘taxi-driver’, just as they may make them assume gender identities like ‘woman’ or ‘drag queen’; or sexual identities such as ‘dyke’ or ‘married’ – although soon this will no longer be an exclusively heterosexual identity in England, too: the first same-sex weddings are to take place in March.
The point, however, is that if we limit ourselves to such categories, we limit our imagination. These categories create antagonisms and make it harder to empathise with others. Let this History Month be an opportunity, not just for people who call themselves LGBT, but for everyone, to learn from historical diversity and reconsider their own names and alliances.
(1) Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has raised the question why gender should be the decisive dimension of our sexual identities (Epistemology of the closet (Berkeley, 1990), 8-9). It may have something to do with the prominence western cultures give to romantic ties, I suspect.
(2) In more formal terms, ideas about what sexual morphologies go with what sexual subjectivities, are constantly changing. These terms are taken from David Halperin’s famous essay on “Forgetting Foucault” (in the journal Representations, 1998).
(3) The pre-modern existence of sexual identities was one of the conclusions of a piece of research I did a while ago. It contradicts the more usual interpretations of Foucault’s history of nineteenth-century sexuality as describing the origins of sexual identity per se. A recent manifestation of this misunderstanding occurred in a Volkskrant interview with a medical doctor. If the newspaper quotes him correctly, he thinks that something only exists if you have a word for it. What is more, he seems to be unfamiliar with any such words that do exist, but outside the western medical profession, which popularised the word ‘homosexuality’ in the nineteenth century – as the name of a disease. Everyday words that people use to describe themselves or their desires, are ignored. Thus, these people and their desires themselves are ignored. In a typical twist, the opinion of those in power, such as presidents, are taken to represent the ‘true’ culture and heritage of a country like Uganda. While pretending to a liberating cultural relativism, such texts actually silence those people that are at this moment in the greatest need of having their say.